Villefranche-sur-Mer is an absurdly picturesque village on the French Riviera. You might know of it if you’ve ever cruised on the Mediterranean. Other than that, there’s no reason the average person would know anything about this tiny fishing village. It was a naval base after the Second World War and Jean Cocteau was madly in love with it, but there are few and far between who know who Jean Cocteau was, and the people who were in the Navy at that time are dead or dying. (There’s a shop down the road selling an original Jean Cocteau sketch that I’m dying to have. Trying to decide if I should just blow my budget on it and eat rice for the next few weeks…it’d look so good above the mantle I don’t have) So, now Villefranche is just a pretty village where you might stop for a day and eat at a nice restaurant along the port before sailing off in your cruise ship.
Villefranche has always been something grander to me than a pretty place. I know of it because my Grandma Betty lived there for several years in the 1950s.
Her life has always inspired me to have a slightly more exceptional existance, which you may have picked up on, and so from my early teen years, Villefranche has been an important and iconic location. It’s also the setting of a book I’ve been writing for a decade now.
About that book. I hate it. I hate every page of it. But I can’t shake it. It’s like a ghost that haunts me every day, lurking in the background until I get it right. Throughout high school, I carried this notebook that looked like a small Gutenberg bible, and I was always scribbling away, thinking I was doing God’s work and planning on where to buy a villa with the proceeds of the book’s sale. Later on, I discovered that the first book you write is inevitably shit. I burned that one. I enjoyed watching the pages curl up and turn to ashes. It was really awful, reader. Then I wrote a different story, Terrible Miss Margo, not so bad, but not great. That one sits on a shelf now; I had it bound, but I know it’s not quite right. I’ll rehash it later. Then I wrote the book about Villefranche again. In exasperation, I started fifteen different versions of it…and none of them are right.
A few years ago, in extreme agitation, I took all my writings and notes and research (which is a considerable amount) and put them in big plastic containers and hid them from my sight. It was too much of a burden to look at it all the time, taunting me, because I know the story is good…I’ve just never been ready to write it.
Recently, I’ve finally become confident with my fiction writing for the first time. I love the novella I self-published on Amazon (GET A COPY HERE, PLEASE), and last night I was rereading the draft of the sequel, On A Desert Wind, and I absolutely adored it. I don’t like the things I write generally. I like the concept of them, but I’ve always been far too frightful of looking incompetent to enjoy them. I like that book, though. I like it an awful lot. I love the characters and the world and the story. But enough about that.
I know that I’m now ready to write this novel about Villefranche in the 1950s…I’ve got the story lined up, I’ve more than done my research. It is time to do it. So, the only thing I could do was visit Villefranche to let the culture flood into me. And that’s why I’m here in Nice. It takes about a half an hour to get to my little village, but when the train pulls into the station, it’s like being in a different world.
And for me it is a different world. I see Villefranche through the eyes of my grandmother. I see it clearly as it was sixty years ago. That restaurant is La Clapotis, not the Palm, and this apartment building should not be here at all, this is where the Hôtel-ker-Maria should be standing. This defunct grocery store was a movie theater. And this road will go to La Barmassa. I know it better than places I’ve actually been. So, when I am finally in Villefranche, where I’ve frequently been on this trip, it’s rather otherworldly, but I’m getting ahead of myself…
The first time I visited, I thought it would be a good idea to walk to Villefranche from Nice and absorb the atmosphere, and boy was I wrong. Wouldn’t be a bad walk in the winter, but in the midsts of summer with the humidity hovering at 1000% percent, I was pretty sure that I was going to die. I accepted this. I’d had a good run. I’d been in a pyramid and stayed in five-star hotels. I was good. I just thanked God that I was wearing rayon, a very breathable fabric that hid the liters of sweat I was losing remarkably well. I’m glad I pulled my hair into a ponytail. Get your giggles out now, coworkers, but you know my ponytail is on fleek:
I hiked and I moaned and I drank out of centuries’ old fountains and I sat and I worried, but I made it. I climbed to the top and saw the sign welcoming me to Villefranche and I beamed. I was ecstatic. I was quite parched.
I wandered about all the areas that I had found my first trip here (second really, but my mother and I only stopped for an hour before the first time) and bemoaned the loss of the Hôtel-ker-Maria. This building is the focus of my book, and I never had the chance to see it with my own eyes. It was here in 2007 when I was, but I was unaware of it. When I returned in 2009, it had been demolished. Now, the space is filled with apartments. They aren’t even pretty. I hate modernity. Look how glorious it was:
I followed winding passageways and staircases:
and wondered why a man was stalking me for a half hour…I finally shook him at the Stade Antoine Bonifaci — the town’s soccer field that was named for Grandma Betty’s best friend in Villefranche’s brother, who was quite a famous soccer player. I told you my life is strange.
Her friend died in Singapore as something of a celebrity chef, but they lost touch after he left France. I found newspaper clippings and interviews…surreal.
Walked through the creepy Rue Obscure:
Stared at the bay:
I stopped by the famous Jean Cocteau chapel:
In my excitement to be back, I had forgotten about my dehydration, so I made my way to a café that I had seen last time that left me stunned. It’s directly across the street from where she lived. Here:
and is called Chez Betty. You know, I don’t believe in coincidences…truly I don’t, too many weird things happen to me all that cannot be random…but the name of this café was just too much for me.
I sat and watched traffic roll by with a glass of white wine, and I was truly content. You could see her apartment building from my seat:
Here it is in the 50s:
I had a lot of questions left unsolved. It was late, though, so I decided to come back the next day instead of luxuriating on the beach. I’m no good at relaxing anyway.
I couldn’t help but spend a little time at the beach, though. Our species has a natural attraction to water, and I have more of an attraction to it than most — I blame my Cornish heritage, so I sunned myself for awhile. I was wearing a new swimsuit. This one (THAT’S A MODEL, not me, don’t get confused):
which I dearly love because I look amazing in yellow. Look, I’m just being honest. But it turns out they have something of a flaw. I was frolicking in the sea, amazing everybody with my swimming abilities — why I’m not a contender for the Olympic team is a mystery to me and the entire Côte d’Azur — when I got out, though, I discovered that the fabric becomes a bit transparent when wet. So…unless you want the crowded beach to see every bit of your genitalia…maybe get a darker color. Learn from me and my accidental exposure. (By the way, I’m still going to wear them because as I said, I look hella good in yellow. It’s my color. That and blue. And black. Anyway.)
I took the train to Villefranche this time, which was an intensely intelligent thing to do as it costs less than four euros for a round trip. I took my notebook and my phone and made my way back to Chez Betty.
Now I have to stop and make a little detour. TECHNOLOGY HAS REVOLUTIONIZED EVERYTHING. And my research is so much easier to access now than ever before. When I started doing investigations for my novel, I had dozens of physical paper files filed with documents that covered my desk. A few years ago I scanned them into my computer. And now, I have an app on my cellphone that gives me instant access to every single piece. All I have to do is search a name, a place, or a date, and the relevant pictures, letters, postcards, or websites pop up immediately. When I was here in 2009 I carried a huge leather photo album with me to compare with. Now I just use my iPhone. (MY GOLDEN iPHONE SIX PLUS. It owns my heart and soul.) I hate modernity when it comes to construction styles, but when it comes to technology, I AM HERE for it.
So, I sat, and I scribbled, and I wrote, and I thought, and I drank white wine, and I watched the woman behind the counter with an eagle eye. She is magnificent. Her hair is dyed blonde and perched on the top of her head in a high ponytail. She is elderly but has all the grace of a young woman. She sizes a person up immediately and either beams or frowns at them (thankfully I received a beam) and she never stops chatting. Actually she reminds me of this:
And I mean that with all the love in the world. Patsy Stone is me as a female.
I was in the café for hours, and when I was ready to leave, I decided that I should say a few words to her. Am I ever glad I did. We spoke in French, of course, but I’ll give you the important bits in English.
I asked her who Betty was…it was her, it’s her café and her husband runs the hotel above, La Regence. We started talking about the coincidence of Grandma Betty living across the street and we both agreed it was odd. But things finally took off when I showed her a picture of Grandma’s husband with the famous footballer.
She took to me at once then, and we became the oldest friends in the world. She spoke to me of the Bonifaci family and the Bernasconis and the Duchateaus. We talked about shops that had gone out of business decades before and of people who were long dead. She told me all about the children of the children of Grandma’s friends…and it was wonderful…and I felt things.
A great buildup of emotion overwhelmed me then, reader, as I stood at the counter drinking espresso with Madame Betty. Because, it was like talking to my grandmother again. Nobody on earth had ever spoken to me about these things but her. And I never thought I would ever talk to another soul who knew Mama Bonifaci or where Roger Bernasconi’s real estate offices were. I didn’t think there was anybody on the planet but me who cared about the Hôtel-ker-Maria or Bidou’s frivolities. But here I was. And it was absolutely magical. And we parted as good friends.
That was an experience I never expected to have, never planned on having, and I’m so thankful that I had that chance. Madame Betty is my queen and is helping to do a bit of research for me on the side, which is ridiculously kind, and I’m so thrilled to have her as my coconspirator.
I was simply on a cloud and I floated down to one of the many restaurants along the port and had a good dinner and beamed all my way back to Nice.
Madame Betty is an earthbound angel.